If you happen to wander around a Greek supermarket or visit a Greek bakery, you will notice that there is always a section dedicated to paximadia (paximadi in the singular) of various shapes and sizes piled high or wrapped in cellophane bags.
At first glance, they look like nothing more than slices of stale bread. So it can be surprising to learn that paximadia (or rusks), once a peasant food found in the poor areas of Greece, are greatly loved all over the country, with many different types available for purchase: from large rustic looking thick slices to small bite-sized “croutons.”
The ancient word for what we call now paximadi is δίπυρος άρτος, literally meaning “twice-baked bread.” It refers to bread that has been leavened and baked twice: once for the initial loaf, then sliced and baked again in a low temperature for a long period of time until all moisture is gone and the slices have hardened.
It’s a time-proven formula: rusks are still made the same way today as they were during antiquity. Of course, in the past twice baking was important, even necessary, to keep bread longer without it spoiling. That way, families who could not bake often, or those away from home for extended periods of time like sailors, farmers and shepherds could enjoy some bread with their meal. It’s the reason why rusks were a staple of very poor Aegean island cuisines, like those of Santorini, Ios, Kimolos and Mykonos, as well as many of the Dodecanese islands – all areas where wood was scarce and people only baked bread a few times a year.
The double-baked bread of antiquity continued to be quite popular in the Byzantine Empire, to judge by its later descendants: the Venetian pasimata, the Croatian peksimet, the Romanian pesmet, the Turkish beksemad and the Arabic bashmet or baqsimat. Many, including Georgios Babiniotis, a Greek linguist and philologist, believe that the word “paximadi” actually comes from Paxamos, a first-century AD Greek baker and cook. He allegedly fine-tuned the way rusks were made, forever connecting his name to double-baked bread rusks.
The preferred flour for paximadia, at least in the islands, was barley, as it thrives on dry land and has a growth cycle faster than wheat. Barley flour has much less gluten than wheat and is much darker in color, giving rusks their characteristic flavor and look. It is the preferred flour for Cretan paximadia too, which are probably the most famous of all rusks. Nowadays, however, Cretan rusks are mostly made with a mix of barley and whole wheat flour, which reflects the fact that barley has become quite expensive and that cutting the barley with whole wheat flour makes rusks easier to digest. Cretan rusks come under different names depending on their shape: dakos (thick oblong slices), kouloures (round ones like donuts without holes, sliced horizontally) and boukies (smaller bite-sized rusks, perfect for meze).
Dark and heavy Cretan barley rusks can be quite intimidating at first sight: who would want to eat something so hard? The secret to consuming them without hazard of breaking one’s teeth is very simple: dip the rusks in water in soften them. However a mushy rusk is a big no-no, so the dip has to be brief. This is also a way to check the quality of a rusk: good rusks, with high barley content, will retain their texture even after coming in contact with water or other liquids.
Rusks taste best when paired with hard or soft cheeses, olives, or cured meats or fish, but can also be eaten as an accompaniment to meals in place of bread. They can also play the role of croutons in leafy salads, thicken soups, soften beef patties (biftekia) or help create beautiful crusts for pan-fried meats. Their appeal lies not only in their versatility or in their complexity of flavor and texture, but also in their ability to soak up a lot of liquid.
It’s a time-proven formula: rusks are still made the same way today as they were during antiquity.
Instead of wetting the rusk, Cretans like to smother it in olive oil (and sometimes a dash of vinegar), then add chopped or grated tomatoes and top it off with myzythra and xygalo, tangy, soft, ricotta-style cheeses typical to Crete made of sheep’s milk or a mix of sheep’s and goat’s milk. The dish is commonly known as dakos (which is the name of the rusk itself), although it’s alternatively called koukouvagia or lantouristo depending on where you are in Crete. The juices of the tomato together with the olive oil will soften the rusk just enough to make it easy to eat, without softening to the point that it becomes mushy and unpalatable.
The fame of dakos has long left the island of Crete and has, in one form or another, gradually become a staple in menus all over Greece, where you will also find it topped with more common white cheeses like feta or katiki or transformed into a savory cheesecake. It is also a family favorite for kids and adults alike as it is a quick and nutritious meal that doesn’t require turning on the oven, perfect for those hot summer lunches or dinners.
While dakos is often a dish prepared at home, the small Cretan kafeneio To Laini in Athens’ Keramikos neighborhood does an excellent version. Another good option for rusks in the neighborhood is Kerameio Bar, which is more bar than restaurant and serves a few basic dishes. Dakos may not always be on the menu, but it’s wonderful when you can get it. The bar is housed in a former pottery workshop (hence the name) and has a lovely little terrace, so even if you miss the dakos it’s worth sticking around for the live jazz on most nights. A bit further afield, in the northern suburb of Nea Erythrea, Apostaktirion makes a consistently excellent dakos with the unconventional yet still tasty carob rusks.
Another equally beloved type of Greek rusk is the ladopaximado from Kythera, an island on the south coast of the Peloponnese. This tasty type of rusk is the complete opposite of those from Crete: light yellow in color and crunchy-soft like shortbread, it’s easily enjoyed all on its own. The dough is composed of durum wheat and up to 20 percent olive oil, hence the name (ladi is the Greek word for oil).
This type of rusk has become so popular that it can be found all over Greece. However, because of their high oil content, they can sometimes turn rancid, so it’s better to buy them from trusty purveyors or brands, like Manna, which makes any excellent version of this type of Kythera rusk as well as high-quality Cretan rusks. The most famous and arguably the best ladopaximado, though, comes straight from the source: Karavas Bakery on Kythera.
Paximadia can also be sweet, although not as sweet as regular biscuits. They are often flavored with aniseed and typically are served together with a cup of Greek coffee. We have to admit, though, that we prefer the savory rusks – a product that has played an integral role in the Greek diet for over a thousand years.
Editor’s note: Our recurring Building Blocks feature focuses on foods and ingredients that are fundamental to the cuisines we write about. This story was originally published on May 7, 2018.